Experience Sarasota: Bijou Cafe
Situated on the site of a former Twenties-era Texaco gas station, the Bijou Cafe, on First Street, has proved a resilient member of Sarasota’s business community.
And now the restaurant has been awarded a much-coveted Zagat award, earning the highest score in Sarasota County, receiving a score of 26 out of 30 in all three categories: food, decor and service.
Considering Zagat’s previous compliments – “Outstanding menu of divine Continental-New American classics,” the Bijou Café was always in line for such recognition. But it was hard work to achieve such heights.
Opened in 1986, owner and executive chef, Jean Pierre Knaggs points out the Café’s origins. Looking beyond the restaurant’s front doors, he smiles and says, “That’s where the gas pumps were. This building has been totally renovated.
“The walls were crumbling when I began this business,” he continued. “But the business has survived.”
And now with a dedicated fan base which stretches far beyond the Gulf Coast, the Bijou Café continues to welcome regular customers and newcomers alike. But it was a tough sell as he admits.
“When we opened in 1986, this area was a dive,” says Knaggs. “It wasn’t pleasant. People would ask me why I was opening up a restaurant in a place that at the time was rundown and dangerous. I just took a chance.
“But what helped us was the Opera House across the street – suddenly there were people who were all dressed up and wanted to have a fine dining experience before going to the opera. At that time there was nothing to compare to us in down town Sarasota.
“But the opera season lasted for six weeks. I was still wondering if the restaurant was going to survive at that time.”
But despite his worries, Knaggs’ professionalism and determination has seen him through the travails and the family-based ambience Bijou Café has maintained the restaurant’s popularity.
And while reality-show chefs may hog the limelight, Knaggs has no apologies for being less than on the cutting edge.
“I don’t serve trendy food,” he claims. “I serve quality and that’s what counts. People come to my restaurant for a quality experience. It’s about friends, family. We have wonderful staff here, and our menu is outstanding.
“When customers walk through the front door, they’re about to spend their hard-earned money. I don’t want to demean them. I offer real food served by real people. I’ve been in this business for 40 years; I’ve seen trends come and go. If you wanted Arugula 10 years ago you would have been laughed at.
“But I’m not into that concept of being on the cutting edge - that’s just bullshit to me; I was born at night, but not last night. I want people to enjoy the camaraderie of eating here – to remember who you were with, not if your plate was full of frou-frou food.
“My customers don’t come here to be educated about the latest culinary trends – anyone can go to school for that.
“My staff and I have made this restaurant into a place that creates memories.”
The Bijou Café
1287 First Street